Bas­ing pay pol­icy on unique ex­cep­tions is fool­ish

Un­like Ter­rence Wise, most fast food work­ers ad­vance rapidly

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Richard Ber­man Richard Ber­man is the pres­i­dent of Ber­man and Com­pany, a pub­lic af­fairs firm in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Last week, Fight for $15 pro­test­ers en­gaged in yet an­other round of co­or­di­nated res­tau­rant protests in ma­jor cities across the coun­try. The group gets no points for orig­i­nal­ity. Like pre­vi­ous protests, ac­tivists put up Ter­rence Wise, a fast food em­ployee from Kansas City, as the face of the cam­paign. And like his pre­vi­ous ap­pear­ances, Mr. Wise is still strug­gling to get ahead while sup­port­ing his fam­ily on a starter wage job.

We first met Mr. Wise four years ago. A New York Times pro­file sug­gested he was living par­tially home­less af­ter work­ing in fast food for 20 years. Since then he has been used in dozens of ar­ti­cles as the poster child for the need to raise the min­i­mum wage.

Mr. Wise is not your typ­i­cal starter wage em­ployee. Not least of which be­cause, ac­cord­ing to Diana Furcht­gott-Roth at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute, he is rep­re­sented by Danny Massey, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the Man­hat­tan pub­lic re­la­tions firm Berlin Rosen. The Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union paid that firm $1.7 mil­lion last year for its work on the Fight for $15.

The turnover of fast food em­ploy­ment is roughly 150 per­cent each year. Yet Mr. Wise has been work­ing in the in­dus­try for roughly a quar­ter-cen­tury. Did he not no­tice the hun­dreds of his col­leagues gain­ing work ex­pe­ri­ence and then leav­ing for greener pas­tures over this time frame?

The me­dia never asks that ba­sic ques­tion. They al­most never in­quire into the cir­cum­stances that lead to sit­u­a­tions that make some­one the im­age of a min­i­mum wage cam­paign.

Two sep­a­rate academic stud­ies show that two-thirds of starter wage em­ploy­ees earn a raise within their first year on the job. The peo­ple who are stuck at an en­try-level wage are there for a rea­son. Some have anger, at­ten­dance, lan­guage, ap­pear­ance or per­sonal hy­giene is­sues. Mil­lions of em­ploy­ees have been held back be­cause of their own be­hav­ior and re­fusal to con­form or change.

So­ci­etal norms dic­tate that peo­ple are gen­er­ally re­spon­si­ble for their own de­ci­sions — es­pe­cially those that pre­vent them from ad­vanc­ing in the world of work. As the an­cient Greeks knew, “The Lord helps those who help them­selves.”

Maybe those who don’t get ahead have a dis­abil­ity not of their mak­ing. As a car­ing so­ci­ety we gen­er­ally help those who have drawn life’s short straw. How­ever, it is a broad-based em­pa­thy. We don’t man­date that their em­ployer, their neigh­bor or their fam­ily pro­vide them with char­i­ta­ble help.

What­ever the rea­son some­one stays in a starter job, it’s im­por­tant to note that they are in the vast mi­nor­ity. The me­dian hourly wage in the coun­try is more than $23. Most peo­ple don’t need wage man­dates to in­crease their pay. And most starter wage em­ploy­ees are 24 years of age or younger — the vast ma­jor­ity of whom will have no trou­ble earn­ing raises on their own as they get more ex­pe­ri­ence and skills.

Big La­bor has learned that the best way to ad­vance their agenda is by por­tray­ing edge cases as em­blem­atic of broader so­ci­etal in­dict­ments: Turn the black swan into the norm.

How­ever, pub­lic pol­icy should not be made based on th­ese ex­cep­tions to the rule. And if any­one is an ex­cep­tion to the rule, it’s Ter­rence Wise.

Iron­i­cally, it’s the em­ploy­ment aber­ra­tions who are most likely to be hurt by the Fight for $15. They are the ones who, for some per­sonal rea­son, are the least val­ued in the job mar­ket. They are first to get laid off when em­ploy­ers ad­just ex­penses to re­main in busi­ness. (Visit Face­sof15.com for spe­cific sto­ries.) As em­ploy­ers shift to more af­ford­able tech­nol­ogy or self-ser­vice, they are the ones who strug­gle the most to find a re­place­ment job.

And the em­ploy­ees who are re­tained and re­ceive man­dated raises? They are the ones who would have got­ten them on their own any­way.

The well-es­tab­lished rule (out­side of the dis­cred­ited Soviet ex­pe­ri­ence) is that peo­ple are paid based on their value to an em­ployer. Their value doesn’t change when they have five kids. It’s true that some­times peo­ple are paid less than what they need. But jobs don’t pay based on need. What pays based on need? Wel­fare. So­ci­ety has dozens of pro­grams to help fill the gap between what peo­ple can com­mand and what they need.

But by con­tin­u­ing to show­case em­ploy­ment aber­ra­tions like Ter­rence Wise, pro­gres­sive ac­tivists con­flate em­ploy­ment with wel­fare, cre­at­ing less of the for­mer and more of the lat­ter.

What­ever the rea­son some­one stays in a starter job, it’s im­por­tant to note that they are in the vast mi­nor­ity.

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